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Know the Laws: Tennessee

UPDATED June 16, 2017

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This page includes information about custody that is specific to this state. There is also a page for general information that you may find helpful.

Basic Information

back to topHow will a judge make a decision about custody?

Custody is determined according to the best interest of the child.  In taking into account the child's best interest, the judge will order a custody arrangement that allows both parents to have as much participation as possible in the life of the child, taking into consideration the factors listed below, the location of the residences of the parents, the child's need for stability and all other relevant factors. The judge will consider all relevant factors, including:

  • Love, affection and emotional ties existing between the parents or caregivers and the child;
  • Ability of the parents or caregivers to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, education and other necessary care;
  • Degree to which a parent or caregiver has been the primary caregiver;
  • Importance of continuity in the child's life and the length of time the child has lived in a stable environment (If the court finds that the other parent abused your child, and you took the child from the home because of this, your relocation will not weigh against an award of custody.);
  • Stability of the family unit of the parents or caregivers;
  • Mental and physical health of the parents or caregivers;
  • Home, school and community record of the child;
  • Reasonable preference of a child who is twelve years old or older (The judge may hear the preference of a younger child on request. The preferences of older children should normally be given greater weight than those of younger children.);
  • Evidence of physical or emotional abuse to the child, to the other parent or to any other person;
  • Character and behavior of any other person living in or frequently visiting a parent’s home and his/her interactions with the child; and
  • Each parent or caregiver's ability to manage parenting responsibilities, including his/her willingness and ability to encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and other parent or caregiver.  In determining each party's willingness, the judge is supposed to consider: 
    • the likelihood of each parent and caregiver to honor and facilitate court-ordered parenting arrangements and rights; and
    • any history of either parent or any caregiver denying parenting time to either parent in violation of a court order.*
* TN ST § 36-6-106(a)

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back to topCan a parent who committed violence get custody or visitation?

Possibly, yes.  The judge is supposed to take into account a parent’s history of physical or emotional abuse towards you, the child, or anyone else when making a custody decision but many other factors will also be considered and the parent may still receive custody rights.*  Visitation may be awarded to a parent who has committed violence unless, after a hearing, the judge finds that visitation is likely to endanger the child's physical or emotional health.**  If the court determines that the parent has committed child abuse or child sexual abuse, the judge can only award visitation under circumstances that guarantee the safety of the child.  For example, the judge can order that all visits be supervised by a responsible adult or agency, that the parent go to counseling, no overnight visits, that the child’s address be kept confidential, and anything else to keep the child safe.***

It is recommended that you seek legal advice from a lawyer to assist you in a custody case involving domestic violence issues.  For information on how to find a lawyer see our TN Finding a Lawyer page.

* TN ST § 36-6-106
** TN ST § 36-6-301
*** TN ST § 36-6-107(b)

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back to topIf I am a domestic violence victim, would I be required to participate in mediation?

It depends.  Most custody or visitation cases may be referred to mediation to try to come to a custody or visitation agreement with the help of a mediator (instead of going to trial).  However, if you have a valid order of protection in effect or there are court findings of domestic abuse, the judge can only send the parties to mediation if you (the victim) agree to it and if the mediator is specifically trained in domestic violence.  You would also have the right to have a support person such as an attorney or advocate with you.*

* TN ST §§ 36-6-107(a); 36-6-305

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back to topWhere can I find more information about custody in Tennessee?

Legal Aid of East Tennessee has information that you can download called: "Basic Custody Guide" and "Custody Rights for Unmarried Parents" as well as other related topics.  Scroll down to the middle of the page under "Family Information".

The Tennessee State Courts website links to parenting plan forms as well as a guide to developing a parenting plan.

Please note that WomensLaw.org has no relationship with these websites and does not vouch for the information contained on them. We provide these links for your information only.

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The effect of military deployment on custody/visitation

back to topIf a parent is in military service and deployed out of state, what happens to that parent's custody or visitation?

Unless the parents are living together and have actual knowledge of one parent’s deployment, the deploying parent must notify the other parent within 7 days of receiving the notice of deployment (or as soon as possible if the circumstances of military service prevent him/her from giving notice within 7 days).  Each parent must then provide the other with a proposed parenting plan to account for the deployed parent’s custodial responsibilities and/or visitation during his/her deployment.*

Note: If either parent has a court order requiring that his/her address remain confidential, the parents can submit the notice of deployment and the proposed parenting plan directly to the court that issued the order instead of sending it to the other parent.**

* TN ST § 36-7-105(a),(b),(d)
** TN ST § 36-7-105(c)

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back to topIf a parent with custody rights has moved away due to military deployment, can the custody order be modified?

The parents have the option of entering into a temporary custody agreement to assign (give to another person) custodial responsibility while one parent is deployed.  The agreement must be in writing and signed by both parents and by any non-parent who is getting custodial responsibility.*  The agreement should include:

  • The length and location of the deployment;
  • How the caretaking authority will be divided among the deploying parent, the other parent, and any non-parent with caretaking responsibility;
  • Specify what decision-making authority, if any, will also be given to each parent and non-parent;
  • Provide a process for final decision-making when there is a disagreement regarding caretaking responsibilities between the non-deployed parent and a non-parent;
  • Regarding communication between the deployed parent and the child, specify the method (type) of communication there will be, the length of time, and how often it will take place; also, specify any role to be played by the other parent in helping to carry out the contact, and who will pay for any costs of contact;
  • Identify what contact is to occur between the deploying parent and child during the time the deploying parent is on leave or is otherwise available;
  • Acknowledge that any change in either parent’s child support obligation cannot be changed by this agreement and that it must be handled in the appropriate court; and
  • Provide that the agreement will terminate and go back to the terms of the original custody order once the deployed parent returns.**
If parents are unable to come to a temporary custody agreement, either parent can file a request with the court to issue a temporary order assigning (giving to someone else) the deployed parent’s custodial rights and responsibilities.  If a custody case is already started, either parent can file a motion in that case.   If a custody case is not already started, either parent can file an initial custody complaint to request that the court issue a custody order to address custody during a parent’s deployment.***

* TN ST § 36-7-201(a),(b)
** TN ST § 36-7-201(c)
*** TN ST § 36-7-302

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back to topIf a temporary order is issued during a parent’s military duty, what happens when the parent returns from deployment?

An order granting custody or custodial responsibility during a parent’s deployment is temporary (unless it says otherwise).  The court cannot issue a permanent custodial responsibility order without the consent of the deploying parent.*  Once the deployed parent returns, the temporary order ends (unless a court order has already terminated the custodial rights and responsibilities before s/he returns).**  A non-parent who is granted any caretaking or decision-making responsibilities has the right to continue to seek that those rights be enforced until the order is terminated by a court or terminated upon the deployed parent’s return.***

* TN ST § 36-7-302(a)
** TN ST § 36-7-307(a)
*** TN ST §§ 36-7-307(b); 36-7-401

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back to topHow will a court consider a parent’s absence due to military duty when deciding which parent gets custody?

When making a decision about which parent gets custodial responsibility, the judge is allowed to consider any significant impact of a parent’s past or possible future deployments on the best interest of the child.  However, the court may not consider past or future deployment as the sole factor for determining custodial responsibility.*

* TN ST § 36-7-107

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